A recent post on social media made the point that Sports Psychology support in the GAA is where Strength and Conditioning was 15 years ago. If we look at where Strength and Conditioning is now in the GAA, we can see there are some counties that employ full-time Strength and Conditioning coaches. The strength and conditioning programme is embedded within a long-term framework and implemented with underage development squads and in the schools programme. Looking at this development of S&C in the GAA led me to think, if Sports Psychology is 15 years behind S&C, where could Sports Psychology be in 15 years’ time? And how can inter-county teams get a competitive advantage right now by using Sports Psychology support to its full potential?
Develop a Curriculum
The biggest return an inter-county GAA team can get from investment in Sports Psychology support is having it embedded within the underage development squads and following this through to the senior squad. Developing a sports psychology curriculum can help players develop the resources to cope with challenges they will encounter along the player pathway. A framework that can be used here is the dual-career competency framework (De Brandt et al, 2018). This framework can provide a structure for developing players’ life skills in areas such as the ability to self-manage, deal with setbacks, social skills and the ability to plan their career in and outside of sport. These abilities are important in Gaelic Games as players will be balancing sport and education/work during their athletic career. Whether a player progresses to the senior game or not, these are important life skills players can be developed through sport.
Junior to Senior Transition
This sports psychology curriculum can then inform the transition from junior to senior level. We often see in the GAA that senior success is built on success at under age level. Because of this we often see coaches of these successful underage teams make the step up to manage senior inter-county teams to bring these players through. A sport psychologist can work with players and support staff to develop an environment which helps facilitate the junior to senior transition. A useful model to understand this process is the transition model by Alfermann and Stambulova (2007). If we can support players to develop their internal resources through access to external support then they will be better able to cope with the demands of the transition. Areas to consider to develop a support programme for the junior to senior transitions include: parent education, coach-athlete relationship, education on the demands of the transition, mentoring by senior players, nutrition, a long-term physical development programme and one-to-one sports psychology support.
Performance and well-being
With an inter-county squad being made up of an extended panel of 30-40 players, it is almost impossible for a coach or manager to speak to every player and understand what is going on in their life. This is where a Sport Psychologist can help players with performance enhancement and overall well-being. Sports Psychologists are trained to help people in sports contexts develop the coping skills to flourish in their day-to-day life. An important consideration for management and a county board is, if they are employing someone to work with players in a one on one context, is this person trained to provide this type of support? Do they have accreditation and the professional indemnity insurance required? With some members of the panel potentially struggling in their day-to-day life, a sport psychologist can provide the care that other members of the backroom team might not have the expertise or time to provide. Where necessary, the sport psychologist will need to refer the player. We often see teams have referral networks for physical injuries. The next step for inter-county teams is to develop a mental health referral network for players that require this support.
A question for management and county boards to think about is who helps the coach perform? The coaching staff and manager are the most important performers in the environment. They shape the overall environment. Good sports psychology happens at multiple levels and supporting the coaching staff is an important element in helping the team and individual players perform. This might involve helping the management team be clear on their vision, ensuring they are all aligned in their communication, facilitating team dynamics, helping the coach-athlete relationship and shaping the environment to promote the desired behaviour and culture.
On the training pitch
When we think of sport psychology, it is easy to think only of one-to-one work with athletes. However, performance happens on the pitch or in the arena. A sport psychologist can help the coach deliver better and more impactful training sessions that facilitate learning. We can also work with the coach to implement psychological skills within the training session. A template and example of a coach working on communication as a psychological skill in practice can be downloaded here or below. Having a session plan framework and a clear idea of the psychological skills you want to develop as a management team is an important starting point.
Watching the winning captains of the All-Ireland Senior Football and Hurling championships speak about their backroom teams after their respective wins, we see the increased role of Sports Psychology in the GAA. Knowing Sport Psychologists working with inter-county teams across the country, there is an increased awareness and buy in regarding Sports Psychology in Inter-County GAA. The next step for teams looking for a competitive advantage is to embrace and integrate sports psychology across multiple levels of the performance environment and not just provide one-to-one support.
Download the Sport Psychology Exercise Plan here.
Alfermann, D., & Stambulova, N. (2007). Career transitions and career termination. In G. Tenenbaum
& R. C. Eklund (Eds.), Handbook of sport psychology (pp. 712–733). John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
De Brandt, K., Wylleman, P., Torregrossa, M., Schipper-Van Veldhoven, N., Minelli, D., Defruyt, S. and
De Knop, P., 2018. Exploring the factor structure of the Dual Career Competency
Questionnaire for Athletes in European pupil-and student-athletes. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, pp.1-18.
Zakrajsek, R.A., Lauer, E.E. and Bodey, K.J. (2017) Integrating mental skills and strategies into youth sport training: A tool for coaches. International Sport Coaching Journal, 4(1), pp.76-89
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